Press Play and Listen

Many of you have seen the posts about Graham Nash touring the high end audio exhibits at CES earlier this month. The experience taught me this: it isn't how good you hear, but how well you listen.

I'm not sure what readers expected from this, and I certainly wasn't sure what to expect, which is why it was an attractive idea. Yes Nash ended up liking what he heard, but for those cynical enough to think he was just being polite, I'm here to tell you first hand that he was excited by the experience, and his enthusiasm was genuine.

As it should be, because I think everyone who was listening with us, in each and every room, would agree that the music was satisfying. The first note from the Vivid speakers in the first suite got him excited, and that excitement grew as we heard each new system.

But there was no guarantee that this would be the case. We weren't paying him (or anyone in this venture). In addition, manufacturers agreed to cooperate voluntarily, and certainly had a lot to lose in a situation that they had little control over. Graham speaks truths, some very uncomfortable (his song "Chicago" anyone?), in his music his banter on stage and in person, so it would be absurd to think he would spin his reactions at CES.

From the beginning, Nash made his criteria clear: he would listen for the emotional and artistic intent of his songs. In addition, at one point he mentioned his Lowden guitar from Ireland, and that he listens for that familiar sound as we go from room to room. He also focuses on his voice. You can see by the photos that he took the listening very seriously, playing each track through to the end.

There were several other exhibitors I wish we could have visited had time not run out: Jeff Joseph, T+A, MSB . . . We passed by the MBL room at one point and Graham wanted to take a look at the Radialstrahler mbl 101E Mk.II speakers on display, immediately drawn to their odd appearance. But alas, there was a demo going on so we listened a bit and moved along.

As you can imagine, making progress through a crowded show with someone like Graham can quickly bog down with requests for photos, autographs and stories. Nash was always interested and engaged and never turned anyone away, and in fact made an effort to greet everyone in the room or hallway. At the close of the day we were just about out of the Venetian—right at the glass doors in fact—when one more couple spotted him and asked for a photo. With a smile he stopped and started arranging everyone.

In the end, he reminded us that listening to music is not a race or sport. Yes we all have preferences, but if you leave your ears open, good sound can take many forms. Nash clearly demonstrated that he not only knew what he was hearing, but more importantly how to listen.

And he liked it. Is that so bad?

dbtom2's picture

one of the good guys. I read his book "Wild Tales" a few years back and enjoyed it. He has a terrific memory and he is honest. (Disclaimer: I have loved his singing since The Hollies)

Thanks for the CES coverage. The Stereophile writing about his CES tour made me feel like I was with you guys. Very nice series.

tonykaz's picture

You did well, I read each post, darn nice bit of journalism.

Tony in Michigan

Anton's picture

If you were to able to ask him a follow up question, I would submit:

"When sitting and playing his guitar, or even singing, how does the sound change from when he is creating the sound to when he is hearing it played back?"

I think it would be fascinating to hear what the differing perspectives would be and how he reconciles the two!

I've never been able to figure out who that strange person is I hear on a recording of me speaking compared to what I hear in my own head! I can't imagine what an artist would think or how it would affect him.

Thank you for the coverage.

jimtavegia's picture

As an amateur I can say that when you sing and play (using headphones), what you think you hear and the audience hears are two different things. I have struggled with this for decades as one who sings many solos at our church. The headphones you use matter greatly and what is time consuming is to note the physical changes one makes as they sing and what that equates to in what the audience hears and what is captured on the recording. It can be frustrating at times as you work to learn what little physical changes one makes in singing and what can be a major impact upon listening back in silence. You try and learn what changes I've made that have made a positive effect on my practice recordings and go from there.

I think this has to do with the resonances that are created in your nasal and ear cavities as you sing and what you hear in that mix as opposed to what is recorded without that resonance being present as you listen on playback, not singing...if that makes sense to you and I am explaining myself right. It is akin to a speaker and cabinet having a resonance in the cabinet that changes to sound a speaker makes at certain frequencies.

I think that I have gotten better at it over the years, but it matters greatly that as you listen on headphones when you sing and record that the mix has the vocal higher in the mix so you can hear yourself sing better and better hear the physical changes you make in an easier way. For that reason I tend to use the Sony 7506's not because they are great headphones, but they tend to push my voice up front more and I can hear more of my singing and listen to changes easier. I would never mix with them as my voice would be at too high a level in the over all mix. I use my AKG K271s more for playback listening and my Focal Spirit Pros for mixing. I listen to the final takes on 4 differents stereo systems before accepting any final mix as the "keeper". I choose mine, and the clients get to choose theirs. All are done at 2496 so little is lost.

Hope I made some sense of this for you. I would love to hear Mr. Nash's take on this as well. Jon Iverson and JA should have a perspective on this as well.

I will also add that this mattered more when everything I did was live to 2-track and there was no way to change the recording levels of singing or playing. It was what it was and so I had to work harder to get levels and my singing right.

Now that I own a new Tascam DR-680 MK2 that is a 6 track SDHC high rez recorder at 2496 or 2 tracks at 24192 I can even take all that I have learned and am now making even better recordings as I can track instruments and voices separately and deal with levels in my mixdowns which really takes a lot of stress out of my live concert recordings that used to drive me crazy. There I only had one chance to get it right, and now I have many with multiple tracks. I will buy a 2nd DR-680 this year and link them and have up to 12 tracks synced up to make my life even easier for larger ensemble work.

Venere 2's picture

Great stuff! I very much enjoyed reading about Graham Nash's experience and impressions, with the different audio systems. A great idea that was very well executed!

I would love to see the experience of an artist listening to music at an audio show repeated. Maybe Neil Young could do the same thing at another show? He is very vocal about good sound. It would certainly be interesting.

dalethorn's picture

There is a dearth of music celebrities who are featured in high-end audio shows and magazines as Nash was featured here. Even if very few of the music 'stars' are really into high-end audio, you'd think more of them would speak out about industry recording practices.

2_channel_ears's picture

(or series of pieces I guess) that I have in Stere-o in quote some time. Thanks for letting us tag along.